Palestine, Judea, and the Wider World

I have been working on the Second Temple era of Jewish history, of what is sometimes called the Inter-Testamental period (roughly 300 BC – 50 AD). I am increasingly aware of the need to define the geographical scope of any such project, and the quite radical changes that through the centuries affected the limits of the “Jewish World.” Of course, that means taking the Diaspora into account, but it also applies to the limits of what we generally call Palestine. In the next couple of posts, I will be talking about the changing borders and limits of the territory involved, and the surprising diversity of the peoples it contained.

When scholars write about this era – for instance, when they try to place the origins of an apocryphal text – they might well locate in Palestine, or in Palestinian Judaism. But here’s the problem. Depending strictly on date, that term might apply to a widespread area, or basically to the city of Jerusalem and its immediately outlying areas.

As I have written before, Palestine in my usage refers to the geographical area that is today covered by the state of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Gaza Strip. That is the area defined as Palestine during the British Mandate that ended in 1948, and subsequently partitioned under United Nations auspices. Despite modern political controversies, that meaning is commonly used by modern Jewish scholars of ancient times, including such prominent figures as Lawrence Schiffman. Such scholars speak of Palestinian Judaism, even the Palestinian Talmud.

For Americans particularly, one surprising point about this Palestinian context is the very small size of the territory concerned. Palestine in that historic sense covered perhaps eleven thousand square miles. As the crow flies (and ignoring borders and security walls), traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus in Syria is a mere 160 miles. Jerusalem to Nazareth is around 70 miles.

That in itself should make us consider the maps we see portraying Jesus’s lifetime, where such cities are at opposite ends of the map, and we wonder how an ordinary person could easily make such a trek. Put in mileage terms, though, the distances look a lot less daunting. They even increase the possibility that perhaps Jesus was a serial visitor to Jerusalem, as the Gospel of John suggests.

When we visualize the “Biblical world,” we often tend to confine it within that Palestinian context. That tendency is perhaps much more common in modern times with the existence of the state of Israel, which defines the scope of our consciousness. In reality, though, those limits rarely made sense in ancient times, and a great deal of Biblical history happened beyond the Jordan, or deep into what we would now call Syria or Jordan.

In making this comment, I am particularly thinking of the insights of Rachel Havrelock’s important book River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. As I remarked in an earlier post,

Havrelock traces the history of shifting ideas of the limits of the Holy Land. Israelite tribes certainly lived across the Jordan, and much Biblical history concerns the interactions with Ammon, Moab and Edom, but different writers varied as to whether the river constituted a hard and fast boundary. That may sound like a technical and even legalistic argument, but it gets to much deeper issues about the exclusiveness of the Israelite community, and its relationship to the wider Gentile world. “Borders” in other words are psychological and spiritual as much as physical, and the Jordan (like many rivers) carries multiple symbolic meanings. To say that “we” live on this side of the river also means that they, those foreigners, those unclean people, live on the other shore, and are nothing to do with us.

This ongoing debate was at its sharpest in the post-Exile world, which produced two wildly divergent interpretations. The view in Ezra and Nehemiah “bases nationhood on racial purity and appears to conceive the nation as a wagons-circled concentration in Jerusalem of Judeans returned from Babylonia; the other, suggested in the Book of Ruth … involves a surprising reversibility of borders.” Havrelock then traces the more expansive view to later universalist movements – to rabbinic Judaism and, of course, to the world of John the Baptist and Jesus.

It’s an important argument, to which I shall return in my next post.

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  • davidsinger

    Phillip

    You state:

    “Palestine in my usage refers to the geographical area that is today covered by the state of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Gaza Strip. That is the area defined as Palestine during the British Mandate that ended in 1948, and subsequently partitioned under United Nations auspices.”

    You omit Transjordan which also formed part of the British Mandate for Palestine from 1920 until 1946 until it was granted independence by Britain in dubious circumstances and renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan.

    Omitting Transjordan – 78% of the territory of the British Mandate for Palestine – in which the provisions relating to reconstituting the Jewish National Home were “postponed or withheld” – and in which a Jew-free Arab State was eventually created in 1946 (subsequently renamed Jordan in 1950) – ignores that the Palestinian Arabs acquired their own State and right to self-determination in 78% of Mandatory Palestine in 1946.

    Ending the Arab-Jewish conflict must take into account these salient facts which cannot be swept under the carpet or ignored.

    Both Jews and Arabs have achieved their own independent states in Palestine – today called Israel and Jordan. Those two states need to sit down and negotiate the sovereignty of the remaining 5% of the Mandate territory that today is called Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

    Creating a third State between Israel and Jordan for the first time in recorded history has been an abject failure.

    When these two successor States to the Mandate – Israel and Jordan – sit down and negotiate the re-drawing of their borders – then perhaps we may see some hope of ending the 100 years Arab-Jewish conflict.

  • philipjenkins

    Am I mis-rememberlng or did we already have this correspondence a couple of years back?

    Palestine in the modern Mandate context did indeed include those areas you describe. Historically, though, in the Biblical era to which I am referring, it is conventionally taken to follow the boundaries that I am describing here

    If, for instance, an eminent historian like Schiffman is describing events east of the Jordan in the first century BCE, he would not speak in terms of “Palestine,” as he would do when referring to (say) Jericho or Jerusalem. The term Palestine referred to one area, not the other. That usage is quite separate from any contemporary debates.

    By the way, the distinction I am drawing is also standard usage among Israeli historians – for the BIBLICAL era, not the mandate period.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    I do believe we had a similar discussion some time ago.

    I am pleased to see that you now acknowledge that “Palestine in the modern Mandate context did indeed include those areas you describe.”

    I note that you further state:

    “By the way, the distinction I am drawing is also standard usage among Israeli historians – for the BIBLICAL era, not the mandate period.”

    Some examples would be helpful to support that general statement.

    You certainly appear to contradict yourself however when you state:

    “Havrelock traces the history of shifting ideas of the limits of the Holy Land. Israelite tribes certainly lived across the Jordan, and much Biblical history concerns the interactions with Ammon, Moab and Edom,”

    Certainly the League of Nations took historical cognizcance of Jewish tribes having lived East of the Jordan River when it included Transjordan as part of the territory within which the Jewish National Home was to be reconstituted.

  • philipjenkins

    I don’t wish to engage in a lengthy debate here, but I am curious about one thing. What is your source for the statement that “the League of Nations took historical cognizcance of Jewish tribes
    having lived East of the Jordan River when it included Transjordan as
    part of the territory within which the Jewish National Home was to be
    reconstituted” ?

    I have not yet read what appears to be the (newly published) standard work on the mandate process, Susan Pedersen’s The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    You ask:

    “What is your source for the statement that “the League of Nations took historical cognizcance of Jewish tribes having lived East of the Jordan River when it included Transjordan as part of the territory within which the Jewish National Home was to be reconstituted” ?

    Answer: The same information you yourself adverted to – Israelite tribes lived across the Jordan River and much Biblical history that concerned interactions with Ammon, Moab and Edom.

    That is why the League of Nations included Transjordan in the Mandate for Palestine with this following statement in the preamble :

    “Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country; ”

    “That country” as you have acknowledged included Transjordan – today’s Jordan – where two and a half of the twelve tribes of Israel settled and where Moses established three cities of refuge – Bezer, Ramoth and Golan.

  • philipjenkins

    Ancient Israelite tribes undoubtedly lived across the Jordan, no argument (and see my next few columns). In the same era, Gentiles also lived in substantial numbers west of the Jordan. These are very mixed societies ethnically.

    However I see nothing in what you write that supports the idea that the League considered that ancient presence EAST OF THE JORDAN in issuing its mandate. In my view, what you write is a nonsequitur:

    “That is why the League of Nations included Transjordan in the Mandate for Palestine with this following statement in the preamble : “Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country; ”

    Am I missing something? I know no evidence that the post-1918 international conferences and League authorities used any such historical or archaeological evidence for that conclusion, which is why I was following up on your statement.

    ie The Mandate granters used history to support the “homeland” in Palestine, and they also threw in those miscellaneous bits of territory across the Jordan because, for whatever reason, they were useful for British interests. Prior to 1918, though, nobody would ever speak of “Palestine” as extending east of the Jordan.

    There are at least two distinct points here.

    One is the nature of the League of Nations Mandate, and how it defined “Palestine” to include Transjordan. That is a specific historical question.

    We can then debate the relevance of that argument, and whether the decisions of rival European imperialists during the post-First World War era should be seen as any more binding or credibly based in the Middle East than in (say) East Africa, or Southwest Africa. I see no reason to accept such a conclusion.

    The other separate question is what the term Palestine implied before the Mandate era. In my view, it clearly implied the lands west of the Jordan, not east.

    In ancient times, this is not even a question. When the Romans and Byzantines spoke of Palestine, the Jordan was the boundary, and different provinces existed east of it.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    You continue to make a series of generalised statements not backed up by any substantive evidence such as this statement:

    “The other separate question is what the term Palestine implied before the Mandate era. In my view, it clearly implied the lands west of the Jordan, not east.

    In ancient times, this is not even a question. When the Romans and Byzantines spoke of Palestine, the Jordan was the boundary, and different provinces existed east of it.”

    Professor Bernard Lewis shoots your “view” down in flames:

    https://books.google.com.au/books?id=h5tjQSU4Ex0C&pg=PT124&lpg=PT124&dq=Palestina+prima+palestina+secunda+palestina+tertia+bernard+lewis&source=bl&ots=2vRBio0RNl&sig=VFql6nVF2Ku2581EZLVoRsIpKh4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAGoVChMIpoSbodPyyAIVYTamCh3epwuY#v=onepage&q=Palestina%20prima%20palestina%20secunda%20palestina%20tertia%20bernard%20lewis&f=false

    Instead of giving me your personal opinions please back them up with some solid evidence – as I continue to do to back my statements.

    Your further following view is also unsubstantiated:

    “The Mandate granters used history to support the “homeland” in Palestine, and they also threw in those miscellaneous bits of territory across the Jordan because, for whatever reason, they were useful for British interests. Prior to 1918, though, nobody would ever speak of “Palestine” as extending east of the Jordan.”

    The “Mandate granters” were all 51 member states of the League of Nations who unanimously endorsed the terms of the Mandate for Palestine which expressly recognised the historical connection of the Jewish people with what you dismissively term “the miscellaneous bits of territory across the Jordan” – which you yourself agree were inhabited by ancient Israelite tribes.

    Pretty compelling reason to include those powerful words in the preamble in the Mandate document – don’t you agree?

  • philipjenkins

    Anyway, we disagree on this issue.

    You have stated your views, I have stated mine.

    I’m done with the topic.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    Don’t be astonished.

    You again fail to substantiate any of your views that have been challenged by me – despite having been given every opportunity to do so.

    Now you add yet another – impugning the professional reputation of Professor Bernard Lewis without giving one piece of evidence to support your claim.

    Are you really disputing that “Palestina” was divided into three regions in Roman and Byzantine times – Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Salutaris or Palestina Tertia?

    If your continuing silence in substantiating your opinions means this is indeed the last grand finale – then so be it.

  • davidsinger

    Why did you find it necessary to alter your original reply to its present form as appears above now?

  • philipjenkins

    Because what you responded to was a couple of fragments that were the beginning of a crude draft. I started writing a lengthy reply then decided that it (and the issue you were ranting about) was not worth wasting time on.

    I was surprised that that earlier draft-in-progress got posted long enough for anyone to respond to. It was only up for (at most) a few minutes, which happened to be when you were online. You might have noticed the incomplete sentences.

    Any more vital questions?

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    Yes – just three more questions:

    1. Why did you also find it necessary to alter the original terms of above post to that which presently appears?

    2. Why did you delete your post impugning the professional reputation of Professor Bernard Lewis without giving one piece of evidence to support your claim?

    3, Have you edited out or altered any other of your posts?

  • philipjenkins

    1. Huh? Explain? Which original post?
    2. Asked and answered above.
    3. No.

  • philipjenkins

    Hey David,

    Like I say, I am not going to waste time arguing with you on your Jordan/Palestine thing.

    However, I can’t let stand the outrageous statement that I am seeking to “impugn the professional reputation” of anyone, leave alone Bernard Lewis. The man is a world-class historian, who has largely created an academic discipline, and anyone working on the Middle East who says they don’t use his writings is joking.

    That said, like many professional historians, I disagree with him on many specific issues. Scholars argue, and scholars disagree. That is what they do.

    Down the road, I may well explore those specific issues further in a blog.

    I don’t know if I can make that any clearer.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    You did in my opinion impugn Professor Lewis’s reputation by failing to provide any evidence to back up your viewpoint and I am pleased that you have reflected on that post and have apparently withdrawn it.

    Perhaps in the light of your present statement that “The man is a world class historian…and anyone working on the Middle East who says they don’t use his writings is joking” – you might care to now state where you disagree with Professor Lewis’s views referred to in the following link :

    https://books.google.com.au/bo

    Professor Lewis there refers to Palestina being divided into three regions – Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia or Palestina Salutaris in Roman and Byzantine times.

    All extended across the Jordan into Transjordan. There were no different provinces east of the Jordan River

    Professor Lewis accordingly does not agree with your claim:
    “When the Romans and Byzantines spoke of Palestine, the Jordan was the boundary, and different provinces existed east of it.”

    Do you have any evidence to back up your claim – or do you now accept the correctness of Professor Lewis’s scholarship?

  • philipjenkins

    Hi David,

    Sigh…. No, I did not “reflect on an opinion” about Lewis and withdrew it, I never gave such an opinion in the first place, and your opinion is incorrect. Did I not make that clear?

    Anyway, to reiterate: we disagree on this issue. You have stated your views, I have stated mine.

    I’m done with the topic.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    This is what you first stated and then withdrew without trying to disclose what you had done:

    “I am surprised to see anyone treating Bernard Lewis’s views on the issue seriously.

    Anyway, we disagree on this issue.”

    If that is not impugning Professor Lewis’s professional reputation – then what do you call it – especially as you then bent over to shower compliments galore on Professor Lewis to cover up your first comment.

    You have some explaining to do. If you choose to remain silent – that is your choice.

  • philipjenkins

    David,

    Oh good grief, NOW I see what you are talking about. You have genuinely had me puzzled.

    I am surprised that any fragment of a draft-in-progress had appeared online, even if briefly. I was launching into a discussion of Lewis’s ideas and statements before voiding the effort, as something to be saved for a future blog, and not wasted in a mere comments section.

    But let me ask: are you really telling me that that was the only sentence that appeared, without the following paragraph or so?

    I remain in disagreement with Lewis on many things, but it would be silly to present such a brief dismissal without elaboration. That would seem obvious enough to me.

    Memo to self: in future, do all composition offline.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    What I posted is all that appeared.

    Do you remain in disagreement with Professor Lewis on the following issue you have so far refused to answer and if you do – please supply the scholarship on which you rely:

    “Perhaps in the light of your present statement that “The man is a world class historian…and anyone working on the Middle East who says they don’t use his writings is joking” – you might care to now state where you disagree with Professor Lewis’s views referred to in the following link :

    https://books.google.com.au/bo

    Professor Lewis there refers to Palestina being divided into three regions – Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia or Palestina Salutaris in Roman and Byzantine times.

    All extended across the Jordan into Transjordan. There were no different provinces east of the Jordan River

    Professor Lewis accordingly does not agree with your claim:
    “When the Romans and Byzantines spoke of Palestine, the Jordan was the boundary, and different provinces existed east of it.”

    Do you have any evidence to back up your claim – or do you now accept the correctness of Professor Lewis’s scholarship?”

  • philipjenkins

    You draw a false dichotomy by suggesting that the choice is (a) accept every detail of what Lewis says or (b) reject his scholarship. No. I can accept and laud his scholarship, while disagreeing with specific conclusions. That is, as I say, what scholars do.

    I am reluctant to discuss this issue at any greater length without being able to cite scholarly sources, but let me say this VERY briefly here. This is what I started to say in the blog post that got cut off.

    Yes, the three provinces Lewis describes existed at particular times, and at particular times, covered the borders he mentions. That includes stretching east of the Jordan. However, those boundaries varied in substantial ways during the lengthy period discussed (“Roman and Byzantine”), so that at times, parts of what I would today call Israel/Palestine are actually included in a province of “Arabia”. In the second century, this Arabia Petraea included basically the southern half of the modern state of Israel, and Arabia gained a new importance under Diocletian.

    You say “There were no different provinces east of the Jordan River.” Depending on period, this is incorrect. What period are you thinking of? It is not true, for instance, in the fifth century, when the province of Arabia included Bostra, Gerasa and Philadelphia (modern Amman) and had its western border on the Jordan river. That province was part of the Diocese of the East/Oriens. If you believe I am in error, please tell me why.

    Accordingly, Palestine I, based on Jerusalem, did indeed have its eastern border on the Jordan.

    By the way, the whole point about those “Palestines” is that, after 135, they were initially intended to be wholly Gentile, with Jews excluded. Palestine III long remained the most non-Jewish and overwhelmingly Arab province, although it covered the southern third of what is now the state of Israel, replacing the old Arabia. The reason Palestine II stretches east of the Jordan was not because of ancient Jewish settlement in the region, but because that this was the main core of Gentile settlement, in the Decapolis.

    I am not sure why you think that sad history of ethnic exclusion helps your “Palestine/Jordan” case.

    As I say, this calls for much fuller discussion, which I do not have time for presently.

    I will be interested to hear your response. I am in no sense dogmatic about this issue, and am prepared to be convinced by your argument, but presently, I am not convinced.

  • philipjenkins

    I should just offer one addendum. I have published two reasonably major books on the Near East in Late Antiquity, the period you are discussing, so I am of course pretty au courant with these boundary issues. I am not speaking off the top of my head.

    What I say here is with some confidence, though I don’t have access to my full scholarly library right now. I hate offering something like this without full footnotes and citations, which I why I was slow to respond to your demand. But if you insist, hey, here we go.

    If you want quick and dirty confirmation on detailed points, check out Wikipedia on the individual Dioceses and Provinces.

  • philipjenkins

    Hi again David,

    I am guessing you don’t know G. W. Bowersock’s well-regarded book ROMAN ARABIA (Harvard 1998). That only goes up to Constantine’s era, but it does provide an excellent view of that earlier time. You know, the era when you said there were no provinces east of the Jordan other than Palestinas.

    As the blurb notes, “The Roman province of Arabia occupied a crucial corner of the Mediterranean world, encompassing most of what is now Jordan, southern Syria, northwest Saudi Arabia, and the Negev.” Correct me if I am wrong, but is the Negev not part of modern Israel?

    I know there are lots of specialist writings on the province in later centuries, but that’s what I’m coming up with casually on the shelves.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    You have redeemed yourself with the following comment:
    “Yes, the three provinces Lewis describes existed at particular times, and at particular times, covered the borders he mentions. That includes stretching east of the Jordan. However, those boundaries varied in substantial ways during the lengthy period discussed (“Roman and Byzantine”), so that at times, parts of what I would today call Palestine are actually included in “Arabia”. In the second century, this Arabia Petraea included basically the southern half of the modern state of Israel, and Arabia gained a new importance under Diocletian.”

    Shifting borders over time is different to what you originally asserted:
    “When the Romans and Byzantines spoke of Palestine, the Jordan was the boundary, and different provinces existed east of it”

  • philipjenkins

    Administrative boundaries do indeed change over time, but do also note that those administrative units differed from general usage. For example, a suburb may be added to the greater area of (say) Manchester, but nobody going there talks about “going to Manchester.” It’s just a matter of administrative convenience, something for bureaucrats. Similarly, whatever the boundaries, in common usage, “Palestine” never ceases to be regarded as that land with its eastern border on the Jordan, abutting on Arabia. Which is what I said. Palestina III, in particular, was always described popularly as Arabia.

    I believe that distinction continued to be observed under
    the Caliphate, which largely retained the boundaries of older Roman provinces, so that the eastern boundary of Filastin was indeed on the Jordan, following ancient precedent. (They also changed the artificial name of Palestina III).

    Now, can we discuss your statement about “There were no different provinces east of the Jordan River”? That is erroneous, correct? Would you care to withdraw it? There is absolutely no need to be embarrassed about that, as (as I understand it) you claim no specialization in Late Antique or ancient history, and these are difficult technical matters. If I made such an error it would be serious, but you could excuse yourself.

    May I also strongly recommend that you read the writings of Bowersock on these issues? They would give you a solid basic knowledge of the political geography.

    I ask a favor. You have been trying to refer me to the
    google books reference to a Lewis book. For whatever reason, that is not coming through. Would you please send me the book title? If you have the specific page you are referring to, that would be nice, but not necessary.

    Sorry to go on at length, but this is why I was being slow to answer your question. I could write volumes more if I chose! It does get obsessive.

  • davidsinger

    Philip

    The book by Bernard Lewis is titled “Islam in history – Ideas People and Events in the Middle East”

    From my perspective I believe we have reached agreement on three important matters:

    1.Palestine in the modern Mandate context included what is today called Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.

    2. Ancient Israelite tribes lived across the Jordan,

    3. At certain periods during Roman and Byzantine times Palestina was divided into three regions – Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia or Palestina Salutaris. All then extended across the Jordan into Transjordan.

    However , those boundaries varied in substantial ways during Roman and Byzantine times.

    Do you have any objections to the above-stated conclusions?

    Thank you for your time and patience.

  • philipjenkins

    I am strongly prejudiced towards agreeing with you because you are a commenter who actually cites his real name!

    You write:

    1.Palestine in the modern Mandate context included what is today called Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.

    CERTAINLY. INCIDENTALLY, A BOOK I ADMIRE ON THAT ERA IS TOM SEGEV’S ONE PALESTINE, COMPLETE.

    2. Ancient Israelite tribes lived across the Jordan,

    OF COURSE. YOU WOULD LOOK LONG AND HARD FOR ANYONE WHO DISAGREES WITH THAT.

    3. At certain periods during Roman and Byzantine times Palestina was divided into three regions – Palestina Prima, Palestina Secunda and Palestina Tertia or Palestina Salutaris. All then extended across the Jordan into Transjordan.

    However, those boundaries varied in substantial ways during Roman and Byzantine times.

    THE PROVINCES WERE AS YOU SAY.

    MY ONLY QUALIFICATION IS THAT AT NO POINT DID THEY OCCUPY THE WHOLE OF THAT LATER BECAME JORDAN OR TRANSJORDAN.

    I do hope that answers your questions. I hate to seem to be evading a straightforward question.

  • davidsinger

    Thank you Philip.

  • philipjenkins

    May I encourage you to check out my today’s posting on the blog? It will clarify my remark about the Decapolis, and the Gentile settlement in what later became “Palestina II.”